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Kittens Need Saving Too: How Blake Snyder’s beats can work for short stories

By Renay Intisar Jihad

How many times has a dream, news event, or conversation inspired you to write short stories or flash fiction but after you feverishly hammered it out and read it, you realize it’s crap. You ask yourself, “What’s missing?” You adjust action sequences, play with character motivation, and revise the climax. Still, you admit, “This sucks.” The story ends up in a litter box filled with other rotting manuscripts. You vow to stoke the tale back to life later, but in your heart you know that “later” is a cemetery for decomposing scripts.

I’ve heard this concern often expressed by authors. One testified that reading “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel,” by Jessica Brody, unraveled the furry balls and matted kinks in their own content. She said, “A story’s plot is much more than making sure there’s an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion.” I agreed and wanted to know where the Save the Cat method originated.

I learned that Blake Snyder designed a story-plotting method for screenwriters in 2005. His outline includes fifteen plot points called story beats which serve as markers along the arc of a hero’s journey. Snyder’s outline focused in on how good screenplays follow a hero’s adventures and point him or her towards an ultimate transformation.

Jessica Brody believed that what’s good for screenplays is great for novels. She decided to repurpose Snyder’s method. Jessica states in her book that, “There is something buried deep within our DNA as humans that make us respond to certain storytelling elements told in a certain order.”

I read her book. It’s outstanding, but I still had unanswered questions. I took a Udemy course with Jessica called “Writing Mastery: Write a Bestselling Novel in 15 Steps” to learn how to apply the method to my projects. This well-organized course enhanced my reading of “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.” Brody shared novel-writing tips in a what you know, want to know, and learned method of teaching. Each beat included an explanation, example, and exercise. I am now finding weaknesses in my manuscript, cradling out a stronger “Opening Image” and reshaping the “Final Image.”  The course helped me look closely at a story’s arc, turning points, flawed beats, inconsistent sequencing, erratic pace, redundant scenes, thematic confusion, misaligned conflicts, and poor hero inner/outer motivation. Free resources with writing tools support writers of all levels. Well worth the twenty bucks spent to take the course.

Still, I thought, Save the Cat is fine, but what about saving the kitten?

Can the Save the Cat method release the hidden kitten in a crouching cat? That is, is the method applicable to shorter works?

Why not Beat-Up short fiction by freeing up a cat’s inner kitten?

What I know for sure is that short narratives that engage the “reader as detective with storylines that have nine or more lives, instead of one, will not fall flat. Not everyone can or wants to pen or read a full-length novel. Novels compete with movies, podcasts, audiobooks, Twitter feeds, etc. for your attention. This premise begs the question: how can writers apply the fifteen beats to short stories?

Through my own perusal of literature on short stories, I have found that many short story writers also seem to employ the Save the Cat method by dramatically condensing the beats in a hero’s journey.

Here are three outstanding resources for those who write novellas, short stories, flash fiction, and micro-fiction:

Worksheets for Writers by paranormal author Jami Gold. Gold received the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for the novel “Ironclad Devotion” in her Mythos Legacy series. She’s written over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing, and her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.

“Make Every Single Scene RIVETING!” (The Save the Cat! Chapter/Scene Beat Sheet!) by Jessica Brody. She is the bestselling author of “The Fidelity Files,” “Love Under Cover,” “The Karma Club,” and the recently released “My Life Undecided.” Her books have been translated and published in over twelve foreign countries and two of her books were recently optioned for film.

Beat Sheet Basics 101. and other posts at StoryFix.com. This website was launched in June of 2009 as a resource for writers who want to explore the principles that underpin the writing of a story that works, most relevantly to novels and screenplays.

Edited by Melody Friedenthal

MetaStellar social media manager Renay Intisar Jihad writes juvenile fiction, idiosyncratic short stories, inspirational and socially conscious poetry, and feature news articles. Jihad writes for the Muslim Journal, AF-AM Point of View newspaper, Medium.com, and PoetryVibe.com. Visit her at RenaySpace.com.